FAA wants moving maps in more cockpits

 - April 30, 2007, 6:52 AM

Reacting to last summer’s crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.–as well as countless runway incursions and serious on-airport incidents that have occurred across the U.S. in recent years–the FAA has launched an effort to speed the testing and certification of surface moving maps for the flight deck.

The crew of the Comair CRJ100 mistakenly took off from a closed, 3,500-foot runway after making a wrong turn in the pre-dawn darkness last August 27. The flight had been cleared for takeoff from Runway 22 (which, at 7,001 feet, was twice as long) but airport construction altered the usual taxiway route for departing airplanes. Just as the pilots swung their CRJ onto the shorter, unlit Runway 26 and started their takeoff roll, the lone controller on duty turned his attention to a pile of unfinished paperwork. The Comair jet roared down the runway but failed to lift off in time to avoid smashing through a berm and into trees. Forty-nine of the 50 people on board were killed in the crash.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in late March announced the agency’s intention to simplify the rules for using digitized surface moving maps in the cockpit, a change she said will lead to improvements in safety. The agency hopes to make the technology affordable for airlines by streamlining the certification process for the software running on certain electronic flight bag (EFB) portable computers. “These devices are going to have a tremendous influence on the safety of our runways,” she said. “It’s ready, we’re ready, and aviation needs it.”

For Use on the Ground Only

It’s no secret that digital maps running on EFB computing platforms are increasingly replacing paper charts. The technology can provide pilots with an array of instantly accessible information, from performance figures to datalink graphical weather maps. EFBs range in sophistication from laptop-like devices that are independent of other aircraft systems to fully integrated display systems linked to onboard file servers.
Prices for the technology range from a few hundred dollars for a rudimentary class-1 device to $100,000 apiece for the most sophisticated class-3 systems.

The technology Blakey and the FAA are promoting to help improve airport safety is defined as a class-2 EFB. Normally, class-2 EFBs include a portable computer that draws power from the aircraft but derives data from its own internal hard drive and is otherwise independent of critical aircraft systems.

Traditionally, only more expensive class-3 EFBs have incorporated airport moving maps showing “own ship” position on a display. Such devices can link directly with
the FMS to call up surface maps, providing a continuously changing view of an airport’s runways, taxiways and structures that helps pilots identify–and anticipate– the airplane’s location on the surface.

But the real backbone of the technology is GPS position, and for that reason the FAA now agrees that own-ship aircraft symbols should be permitted for use on class-2 surface displays. Under the revised guidelines, such devices could be used in lieu of class-3 devices on the ground, but the restrictions on their use in flight would remain, Blakey said in a speech on March 23.

The FAA said simplifying the certification process could reduce the cost for end users by roughly 90 percent, down to somewhere around $20,000 or less per device.

Since issuing its original guidance for EFB certification in 2003, the FAA has reviewed numerous studies and human factors research on the systems and their safety. The research has shown that pilots had far better awareness of their position on the airport surface using an own-ship position display. Recent real-world tests conducted by the FAA demonstrated that pilots typically only glanced at the own-ship display, and then quickly looked out the windows to verify the information visually. This study eliminated one of the FAA’s major concerns that pilots would be “head down” too long to maintain safe operations.

The Comair crash wasn’t the only runway-related mishap in the last 12 months. Last July 23 a departing United Airlines 737 came within 300 feet of colliding with a 747 freighter on an intersecting runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The incident was blamed on controller error.

Less than a week later, two regional airliners nearly collided at Los Angeles International Airport when an America West regional jet strayed onto an active runway into the path of a departing SkyWest Embraer Brasilia. A warning by the tower controller and quick reaction by the SkyWest pilot averted disaster as the airplanes missed each other by an estimated 150 feet.

A SkyWest pilot in early October slammed on his brakes when a GV strayed onto the runway. The SkyWest jet stopped less than 100 feet from the business jet. Then, at the end of October, a Lufthansa 747 “brushed” the wing of a Continental 757 at Newark.

Many experts believe it’s only a matter of time before another crash occurs. “I’ll say it plainly,” Blakey said of the class-2 surface map technology. “It needs to be in the cockpit.”

Jeppesen Demonstrates Airport Moving Map Technology

Jeppesen’s Airport Moving Map technology for EFBs is intended to provide flight crews with an airplane’s precise location on the ground in relation to runways, taxiways, hangars and other buildings. Unlike some other surface-awareness technologies, Jeppesen’s maps are derived from satellite imagery and geo-reference to provide highly accurate representations of the airport.

Whenever the airplane is on the ground, Airport Moving Map automatically calls up the appropriate taxi map, based on information it receives from the FMS or a GPS receiver. The map includes two primary views, planning mode and tactical track-up mode. In planning mode, the EFB screen shows the airport surface in north-up orientation without an own-ship position cue. Switching to the tactical view, the map shows own-ship position in the center of the screen and rotates as appropriate. 

Airport Moving Map is part of a suite of applications offered for EFBs. Jeppesen has partnered with a number of EFB hardware providers to offer the software applications and data needed to bring the product to the market. Successful trials of the technology have been completed, and the feature has entered everyday commercial service on KLM’s fleet of 777s.

The Airport Moving Map was demonstrated at the press conference the FAA held on March 23, at which the agency announced plans to ease operational approval of the technology.